To be honest, I’ve had a smuggish little wiseacre-y lede for this review tucked safely away amid the warm and self-satisfied folds of my netherbrains for almost a solid week now — that is, for several days prior to even seeing the film. (That wasn’t it, by the way.) You know the sort: detached, perhaps needlessly salty — some smirking assembly of words intended to allow for the possibility that the two-hours-and-significant-change spent in the company of Mr. Tarantino’s latest picture might fall short of enthusiastic recommendation, by suggesting that, if nothing else, the occasion would at least provide me with sufficient excuse to rent The Dirty Dozen, and finally remove Lee Marvin and company from that shameful and ever-lengthening list, Films I Most Certainly Should Have Seen By Now, But Just Plain Haven’t, All Right?™.
Like the man says, though: Best-laid plans, etc. The lede will not do. I must somewhat grimly report that the past week has been busy, and Mr. Marvin’s squinty, man’s-man’s-man countenance yet glares at me from said list like a slab of masculine, silently judging leather. (Bust of Pallas and all that.) Far less grimly, I report that the lede will not work for a second reason: I wholeheartedly recommend the shit out of Inglourious Basterds `sic`.
According to legend (and by “legend” I mean chiefly “the production notes” and “a rather cursory internet search”), 2009’s Basterds comes to us across 10 years, several drafts, and once-potential iterations as a miniseries or novel — none of which is particularly surprising, given not only the film’s near-three-hour runtime, but its remarkable breadth. Admittedly, I’d been finding it a shade difficult to imagine how a Tarantino-imagined period-piece war epic would look, sound, and feel; the answer, quite frankly, is “pretty durned stunning.”
Basterds is five vibrant, violent, genre-twisting chapters, all set mainly in Nazi-besieged France. The first introduces Colonel Hans Landa (Cannes Best Actor winner Christoph Waltz) — surely one of the most unforgettable screen villains in years, if not ever — a Nazi “Jew hunter” as surgical in manner as he is bombastic, as chilling as he is (untoward though it may sound) ceaselessly entertaining. The last chapter is a fiery, nightmarish bloodbath, wrapped in sumptuous imagery and tempered with — of all things — doses of screwball comedy, hurtling toward a maniacally bold climax that truly couldn’t have played out any other way, all things considered. Within and between them rests what might be the best and most satisfying storytelling Tarantino has ever done. (It’s worth noting here that Jackie Brown is on my List™, as well.) Strangely enough, the much-hyped Jewish-American-soldiers-as-avenging-angels plot of chapter two, though good, was the least interesting to me: Segments about a strong-willed young Jewish theater owner, an Allied-agents-vs.-S.S. Mexican standoff (naturally), and parallel undercover assassination plots seemed richer and more dynamic. Regardless: Near-three hours passed nimbly by without a hitch.
Basterds is stylish, daring, and snappily written; its greatest and least-expected asset, though, may well be its superb, largely international cast. There are actors here — the aforementioned Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender as an urbane Brit special agent, August Diehl as a razor-sharp S.S. major, Groth as Goebbels — whom I don’t remember ever seeing before, but whose talents left me positively exhilarated. (Further: Where on Earth did they dig up Olivia Hussey dead ringer Anne-Sophie Franck? Scary, almost.) And though Pitt’s Tennesseean Basterd king Aldo Raine (Sling Blade meets O Brother?) may take a few minutes to settle, once he does, it’s all charisma and quotable one-liners until the finish line.
There were moments of trepidation for me during the early goings. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a sensationalized, Grindhouse take on the events of World War II. And yet, Basterds is quite a bit more than that. It is inventive, surehanded, aggressively original — and destined to be a classic.